An African American first responder: An oral history with William C. Covington

Contributed by Chaitra Powell, African American Collections and Outreach Archivist 


William C. Covington in his uniform

The tales of African American first responders, over the years, are full of bravery, perseverance, strength, and principle. These men and women are at their best when society is at its worst. The Southern Historical Collection is always looking for ways to shine light on these important figures in our collective history.

Starting in March of 2015, we have had the pleasure of working with one of Charlotte’s early African American police officers, Mr. William C. Covington. We want to feature Mr. Covington on this blog post as a way to show how important it is to be cognizant of gaps in the historical record and do our best to address them. We also think that it is quite timely to hear a retired police officer’s perspective on the role of police officers in African American communities.


Mr. William C. Covington was born February 26, 1926 in Charlotte, NC. He attended Belleville School (K-6), West Charlotte High School (7-12) and Johnson C. Smith University, where he graduated with a degree in Biology in 1950. Shortly after graduation, he was drafted into the Army and stationed at Fort Eustis in Virginia, and spent some time abroad in Germany.

By 1953, he had moved back to the States, to a harsh racial climate and meager job prospects. He used his GI Bill to study photography in New York City, like his friend James Peeler. However, he was unable to use the credential to earn a sufficient living for himself and his family. Covington reluctantly applied to the Charlotte police department and began his career in 1954.



Covington and his fellow African American police officers patrolled Charlotte’s seven African American neighborhoods on foot. He remembers how he used to help people by maintaining order in public places as well as the support and protection of his community; even when he had to arrest someone.


Although, he was made to feel insignificant by the white officers, he found a profound brotherhood among the African American policemen. The men helped to form the North PoliceAcademyCovingtonCarolina Organization of Black Police Officers which provided support and advocacy for African American police officers who were constantly feeling the brunt of unjust policies. For example, African American police officers were not supposed to arrest white criminals and they were never promoted or given raises, even if they had college degrees or exemplary records of service. Covington was a part of the team that successfully sued the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department for discrimination in the 1970’s.

The full one hour and forty five minute oral history session with retired policeman, Mr. William Cecil Covington, is currently being processed at the Southern Historical Collection. Please contact us directly if you are interested in mediated access to this content; hopefully it is the beginning of much more material related to the history of African American first responders in the American South.

Posted in African American, Archival Work, Southern Oral History Program | 1 Comment

Happy Fourth of July!

The Southern Historical Collection would like to wish you a very happy Independence Day! We may think of Fourth of July celebrations that include fireworks and barbecues, but this may not have been how we historically celebrated the nation’s founding.

Joseph Nathaniel Allen Letter

From Folder 1, in the Joseph Nathaniel Allen Papers #5066, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In a letter dated 10th of July 1858, Joseph Nathaniel Allen described the Independence Day celebration in his hometown in North Carolina. He explained that there were large crowds of people, and a traveling band. The highlight of the day for him involved a reading of the Declaration of Independence, though he complained of people being too noisy for him to hear properly and lamented his ignorance about the contents of the document.

The Southern Historical Collection also has preserved records from one of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. William Hooper helped found the government of North Carolina during the Revolution, and was elected to the First and Second Continental Congresses. He split his time between North Carolina and Philadelphia, and both of his family homes, in Finian and Wilmington, were captured by the British. The collection here includes documents from North Carolina’s revolutionary government, and a biographical sketch completed by his nephew.


William Hooper, who signed the Declaration of Independence.
His collection can be found at: William Hooper Papers, #352-z, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


This isn’t all we have on the American Revolution of course, but is a small sample related to the history of the holiday as we know it today.

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Founded in 1865: African American Churches at the End of the Civil War

This year marks the close of the Sesquicentennial (150th) commemoration of the American Civil War, but it also marks the anniversary of the founding of many important institutions in the African American community, as many black churches trace their origins to this time around the end of the Civil War.

Prior to Emancipation, white southerners exerted control over African Americans in nearly every sphere of society, including religious worship. Slaves and free people of color were treated as second-class members of most churches, relegated to sitting in balconies or galleries of many churches, without much say in church affairs. Also, during slavery, many sermons were layered with messages emphasizing the obedience of slaves to their masters. But as freedom took hold for African Americans through Emancipation after the Civil War, many congregations began to split along racial lines and the institution of separate black churches emerged.

As a result of the Civil War, more than 300,000 formerly enslaved people in North Carolina —roughly a third of the state’s population—gained their freedom. Over 5,000 of these freedmen were in Orange County, with over 400 of these individuals in the town of Chapel Hill. There was great upheaval and movement as many of the newly free left their former masters and mistresses. Several first hand accounts of the war’s end describe an exodus of African Americans from the town. The same accounts indicate that some of those who left later returned.

Here in Chapel Hill, at least two historically African American churches were founded around the end of the war: St. Paul A.M.E. Church (founded in 1864) and First Baptist Church (1865).

The Southern Historical Collection preserves an important piece of the story of the founding of First Baptist Church, within the minute books of the University Baptist Church. The congregation of the University Baptist Church (which was simply called the Baptist Church back then) included white members, enslaved men and women, and free people of color.

An entry in these minute books, dated September 3, 1865, states, “On motion it was unanimously voted that the colored patrons of this church be allowed to withdraw from the church and organize a church to themselves.” Several pages later in the minutes, it was also noted, “Four members have been dismissed by letter besides sixty-one colored members dismissed in September for the purpose of forming a separate church. This separate church, known as the Colored Baptist Church of Chapel Hill, is now in an acceptable operation and hopes are entertained of its doing well.”


“List of Col. Female Members, C.H. Baptist Ch.,” from University Baptist Records, #4162, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill.

The congregation of the new Colored Baptist Church initially met in an old schoolhouse on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, known as the “Quaker Building,” until a church building could be built. Rev. Eddie H. Cole served as the church’s first pastor. The church changed names several times over the years, from Colored Baptist Church to First Baptist Church, then to Rock Hill Baptist Church and then back to First Baptist Church. This September will mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of First Baptist Church in Chapel Hill.

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New Collection: Helen Maynor Scheirbeck Papers (#5526)



Helen Maynor Scheirbeck

We are pleased highlight one of the many new collections that became available for research this spring: the Helen Maynor Scheirbeck Papers.

These papers contain almost 20,000 items related to Helen Maynor Scheirbeck’s work as a community organizer, educator, and political scientist. She focused her career on achieving better American Indian education in the U.S., and on receiving tribe recognition for both the Lumbee tribe in North Carolina and the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin.

Our finding aid has more Scheirbeck and her many accomplishments:
The Helen Maynor Scheirbeck Papers #5526, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Educating Voters During the Civil Rights Movement


This powerful image, part of the James A. Felton and Annie Vaughn Felton Papers (#05161), is a flyer used by the Voter Education Project in 1970. James A. Felton co-founded an African American organization in North Carolina called the People’s Program on Poverty. Its aim was to study and change poverty at the grass-roots level. This flyer shows one way it worked with the Voter Education Project to support the education of African American voters in The South during the civil rights movement.

Learn more about the collection using its finding aid:
The James A. Felton and Annie Vaughan Felton Papers #5161, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

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Presenting “Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia”

Intro PanelOver the last few years the SHC has been collaborating with Karida Brown (Ph.D. candidate at Brown University) and many Appalachian families on the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP), which documents peoples’ lives in eastern Kentucky and their tale of migration into and out of the communities there. The wonderful stories shared by the endlessly generous people who grew up in these small towns inspired the creation of Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia–an exhibit hosted in Wilson Library’s Melba Saltarelli Exhibit Room.
The exhibit explores an often forgotten part of American History. It shares part of the story of the Great Migration of African Americans out of the Deep South and into coal mines of Appalachia. After the mining industry collapsed, the people who grew up there left again. The exhibit explores what home means to a community that sometimes spent only one generation in Appalachian America.
The exhibit opens on Monday, and we hope that during its life you’ll come to share our enthusiasm for these stories. You can learn more about EKAAMP on its website, and we hope to see you here between April 27th and July 31st 2015.

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Reporting Live (Yesterday): Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance Workshop at UNC-Chapel Hill


l to r. – Mayor Johnny Ford (Tuskegee, AL), Mayor Alberta McCrory (Hobson City, AL), Mayor Barbara Mallett (East Spencer, NC), Mayor Bobbie D. Jones (Princeville, NC), Mayor Daryl Johnson (Mound Bayou, MS), Mayor Ed Jones (Grambling, LA), and Mayor Anthony Grant (Eatonville, FL) outside of Wilson Library, April 6, 2015

The curatorial team (Biff, Bryan, and Chaitra) of the Southern Historical Collection showed up in full support of the HBTSA workshop in Chapel Hill. We were disappointed in February when the inclement weather forced the workshop to be postponed, but we were elated to see our old friends from Hobson City, Eatonville, Mound Bayou, Grambling, and Tuskegee this week. The mayors were joined by their community champions, politicians, scholars, UNC administrators/staff, as well as mayors from three North Carolina, historically Black towns, Princeville, Navassa, and East Spencer.

The first day at UNC’s Friday Center included sessions on Entrepreneurship/Cultural Tourism, Nutrition/Health/Food Culture, followed by a presentation from the North Carolina black towns and a trip to Wilson Library. For the Wilson Library portion, Bryan and Chaitra shared remarks about the SHC’s more nuanced and participatory approach to collection development, while Wilson’s head conservator, Jan Paris, gave the group a brief overview of her work and shared some tips about properly caring for their own paper based materials. Jaycie and Rachel from The Southern Oral History Program surprised the audience during their presentation when they played a snippet of an interview from Tuskegee Mayor, Johnny Ford, from 1974.


In the state-of-the-art instructional space, Southern Historical Collection director, Dr. Bryan Giemza, introduces the group to the resources available in Wilson Library

As if the day was not packed enough, within 30 minutes of getting shuttled back to the Friday Center, the group was treated to a wonderful meal and presentation in recognition of former Chapel Hill mayor, Howard Lee, and his wife Lillian. The dinner included a performance from North Carolina Central University’s Vocal Jazz Ensemble, and an invocation from Dr. Derek S. Hicks. Special guests included Floyd McKissick, Jr., the mayor of Carrboro, Lydia Lavelle, and various others in public office who have been inspired by Howard Lee, Chapel Hill’s first African American mayor, elected in 1969.

On Tuesday, the group returned to the Friday Center to hear more about Entrepreneurship/Cultural Tourism, Legal/Governmental Issues, followed by a synthesis and a heartfelt farewell.

The entire conference had a relaxed, family reunion feeling, the rooms were overflowing with good intentions and warmth, even when folks expressed concerns about the sustainability and longevity of various partnerships with UNC. More than once, participants shared the importance of bringing young people into the process and the principle that this is more than a project; we don’t want to relegate these towns to the halls of history, but help them to activate their histories in order to maintain a vibrancy for the next 100 years or more! While we can’t give away the details to every proposal discussed during the meeting, we can definitely say there may be some excitement on two wheels headed to an HBTSA partner near you!

A 1983 photo of an African American man and two young boys working on a bicycle; from journalist, Charles Kuralt's Collection (#04882) in the Southern Historical Collection

A 1983 photo of an African American man and two young boys working on a bicycle; from journalist, Charles Kuralt’s Collection (#04882) in the Southern Historical Collection

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J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr.: Artist and Teacher

Guest Poster: SHC Student Worker, James A. Moore (UNC Class of 2015)

We here at the Southern Historical Collection are ecstatic to announce the opening of a new art exhibition in the library at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center. The exhibit, which is entitled, Selected Works of J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr: Returning Where the Artistic Seed was Planted, commences April 1 and will be open to the public through June 30. There will also be a reception on April 1st in the Stone Center Library from 5:00-6:30 at which anyone is welcome, and no RSVP is required.

Born in Greensboro, N.C., J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr. earned his Bachelor’s Degree in art from Morehouse College in 1938. From there he went on to attain art degrees from Ohio State, New York University, Arizona State University, the American Artists School in New York City, and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Marseilles, France. Throughout this time, J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr. became the object of artistic praise and admiration, running in the same circles as the most talented African-American artists in the United States.

Aside from J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr.’s obvious passion for producing art, Grigsby also possessed a passion for teaching art. Starting in 1946, Grigsby took on the daunting task of creating an art department for the African-American students at the segregated Carver High School in Phoenix, Arizona. Once Carver closed in 1954 (due to the Brown v. Board of Education case which outlawed segregated schools) Grigsby chaired the Art Department at Phoenix Union High School until 1966, when he would move on to become a professor in the School of Art at Arizona State University and retire as a Professor Emeritus of Art Education.

To commemorate J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr.’s invaluable work as an educator, and highlight the immeasurable influence he had on all of his students, we here at the SHC have selected various materials from Grigsby’s teaching career. If you would like to learn more about the life and work of J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr., feel free to look up his collection in the SHC, check out his upcoming exhibit at the Sonja Haynes Stone center, or join us at the exhibit’s opening reception on April 1st from 5:00-6:30 in the Stone Center Library.

A final exam from an"Art Appreciation" class taught by J. Eugene Grigsby Jr., undated. J. Eugene Grigsby collection (#05295)

A final exam from an”Art Appreciation” class taught by J. Eugene Grigsby Jr., undated. J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr. collection (#05295)

Photo of Juanita Eddings, student of J. Eugene Grigsby Jr from Carver High School., showcasing a ceramic which she won an award for.

Photo of Juanita Eddings, student of J. Eugene Grigsby Jr from Carver High School., showcasing her award-winning ceramic plaque. March 1, 1953.  J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr. Collection (#05295)

Posted in African American, Art/Artists, Events, Exhibitions, Featured Collections, Uncategorized | 1 Comment